Printer Friendly

America and the Asia-Pacific: The Geopolitical Vision of General Douglas MacArthur.


Douglas MacArthur is known to history as a great and controversial soldier and general. He served in the U.S. Army for 52 years and led American forces in three of the 20th century's greatest wars. But he was also a geopolitical visionary who foresaw that America's future was tied to the Asia-Pacific region. MacArthur was advocating for a "rebalance" or "pivot" to Asia long before it became fashionable to do so. The rise of China and India and the ongoing friction in the East China and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean have awakened U.S. leaders to the importance of shifting our geopolitical vision to that region. A long time ago, Douglas MacArthur pointed the way.

MacArthur's accomplishments in war and in peace are legendary: he bravely and repeatedly led troops across "no man's land" during the First World War; as superintendent, he dragged West Point into the 20th century; he headed-up the U.S. Olympic Committee in the late 1920s; he served as one of the nation's youngest army chiefs of staff; he served as U.S. military advisor to the Philippines and Field Marshal of the Philippine army; after Pearl Harbor, he led U.S. forces battling Japan on Bataan and Corregidor and won the Congressional Medal of Honor; he made a daring escape to Australia after being ordered to do so by President Roosevelt and uttered the famous phrase, "I came through and I shall return"; he coordinated combined arms operations in the New Guinea campaign that brilliantly utilized air and sea power to bypass Japanese troops and leave them withering on the vine; he dramatically returned to the Philippines, wading ashore at Leyte Gulf and calling on Filipino rebels to rally to him in the fight against the Japanese occupiers; he was assigned the task of leading U.S. forces in the planned attack on the Japanese main islands that was only rendered unnecessary by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; he accepted the formal Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on the U.S.S. Missouri, where he delivered a memorable address on the futility of war; he served as military administer of postwar Japan for five years, leading the transformation of that country from a militaristic empire into a stable, peaceful democracy; and he conceived and championed the brilliantly successful Inchon landing during the Korean War, one of the most audacious and successful military operations in the history of warfare. Winston Churchill called him the "glorious commander." George Marshall called him "our most brilliant general." Biographer and Pacific War veteran William Manchester called MacArthur the greatest man at arms that the United States ever produced.

MacArthur's historical reputation suffered, however, as a result of his verbal clashes with President Truman during the Korean War. He cringed at the notion that America would expend the blood of its soldiers, sailors, and airmen in indecisive wars, famously saying, "In war, there is no substitute for victory." Truman and the Joint Chiefs disagreed, and MacArthur was relieved of command. Ever since then, conventional histories have usually portrayed Truman as saint and MacArthur as sinner in Korea, but the truth is far more complex.

There has recently been a revival of interest in Douglas MacArthur. During the last three years, several new books and biographies have appeared covering some aspect of the general's life and career: Supreme Commander by Seymour Morris, Jr; The Most Dangerous Man in America by Mark Perry; The Generals by Winston Groom; MacArthur at War by Walter Borneman; War at the End of the World by James Duffy; Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman; and most recently, The General vs. the President by H.W. Brands.

Of course, still worth reading are William Manchester's American Caesar, Geoffrey Perret's Old Soldiers Never Die, and most comprehensively, D. Clayton James' three-volume The Years of MacArthur.


MacArthur's appreciation of Asia and the Pacific Rim began with his father, Arthur MacArthur, a Civil War hero at the age of 19 (winning the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics on Missionary Ridge during the Battle of Chattanooga), and later one of the leading generals in the U.S. Army. Arthur MacArthur had a fascination with economics, and his reading list included works by David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, and Walter Bagehot (Herman, 2016). He also had a great interest in China, Japan, and what was then called the Orient (Herman, 2016).

In 1882, Captain MacArthur wrote a 44-page "Chinese Memorandum," which predicted that America's future was in Asia and the Pacific Ocean. Arthur Herman describes it as "a scholarly tour d' horizon of American foreign policy in Asia" (Herman, 2016). The senior MacArthur advocated the creation of a "trans-Pacific commercial network" involving the U.S., China, Japan, and all of East Asia (Herman, 2016). America's westward expansion that had fulfilled the goal of Manifest Destiny should continue, he argued, across the Pacific. He also envisioned that China would one day become a great military and commercial power.

After the defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War, General Arthur MacArthur landed with additional U.S. forces in the Philippines in an effort to subdue Filipino rebels who did not want to trade Spanish rule for American rule. MacArthur was subsequently named military governor of the Philippines and led U.S. forces in brutally suppressing the Filipino rebellion. MacArthur subsequently clashed with America's civilian head in the Philippines, future President William Howard Taft, and was relieved of command.

The War Department assigned General MacArthur to observe events in Asia, particularly the Russo-Japanese War that broke out in 1904. General MacArthur undertook a lengthy tour of the Indo-Pacific region accompanied by his son Douglas, a first lieutenant who had recently graduated at the top of his class at West Point.

It was then that Douglas MacArthur got his first "taste" of Asia, and it made quite an impression on the young soldier. Many years later, MacArthur recalled in his memoirs, Reminiscences, that he and his father traveled from Japan to Hong Kong, Singapore, Rangoon, Calcutta, Peshwar, Quetta, Bombay, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Madras, Colombo, Java, Siam, Indochina, Canton, and Shanghai. "We were nine months in travel," MacArthur (1964) wrote, "traversing countless miles of lands so rich in color, so fabled in legend, so vital to history that the experience was without doubt the most important factor of preparation in my entire life." He continued:

The true historic significance and the sense of destiny that these lands of the western Pacific and Indian Ocean now assumed became part of me. They were to color and influence all the days of my life. Here lived almost half the population of the world, with probably more than half of the raw products to sustain future generations. Here was western civilization's last earth frontier. It was crystal clear to me that the future and, indeed, the very existence of America, were irrevocably entwined with Asia and its island outposts.

During the Asian tour, the young first lieutenant met several Japanese commanders--he described them as "those grim, taciturn, aloof men of iron character and unshakeable purpose." He recalled having an "uneasy feeling," however, that Japanese military leaders, having conquered Korea and Formosa (Taiwan), "would eventually strike for control of the Pacific and domination of the Far East" (MacArthur, 1964).

What Douglas MacArthur saw on that tour, writes Arthur Herman, was "the abundant opportunities for America to exert its commercial, military, and cultural muscle, once it had committed itself to a decisive turn to the Far East" (Herman, 2016).

But America, for the most part, was not paying attention to the Far East. Sure, President Theodore Roosevelt mediated the negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War, and sent the great white fleet around the world; but storm clouds were gathering in Europe and trouble was brewing in Mexico. Douglas MacArthur's Asian-Pacific destiny was to be postponed by U.S. incursions into Mexico and its entry into the First World War.

MacArthur did a brief stint in the Philippines in the mid-1920s, and in the mid-to-late 1930s became military advisor to the Philippine government and Field Marshal of the Philippine Army. During the latter time period, he urged Washington to pay more attention and devote more resources to Asia and the Pacific, but once again developments in Europe took center stage. This continued throughout the Second World War.

In December 1944, in the midst of the Philippines campaign, MacArthur described for a group of reporters his postwar geopolitical vision. Japan's defeat and the deteriorating situation in China could lead to the spread of communism in East Asia. The only power in a position to prevent this, he noted, was the United States but Washington failed to recognize the importance of the Pacific theater in the postwar world. "The future shape of the balance of power," wrote Herman, "was clear in MacArthur's mind." "The history of the world for the next thousand years," MacArthur predicted, "will be written in the Pacific" (Herman, 2016).

After Japan surrendered, MacArthur assumed the duties of a statesman, presiding over a prostrate, devastated country. He grasped immediately the importance of transforming Japan into a stable, peaceful, and economically vibrant democracy. He entered Japan by landing unarmed and mostly unguarded as an airstrip in Atsugi. It was, Winston Churchill remarked, "the most daring and courageous act of the entire war" (Morris, 2014).

The successful occupation and renewal of Japan had consequences throughout the region. As Seymour Morris notes, following Japan's lead, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Malaysia "would turn into some of the most dynamic economies in the world, stopping communism in its tracks." MacArthur's statesmanship, according to Seymour, saved not only Japan but also much of Southeast Asia (Morris, 2014).

The war in Korea and the confrontation between General MacArthur and President Truman was a defining moment in U.S. postwar policy. The success of the Inchon landing of September 15, 1950, had long-term consequences for U.S. foreign policy in Asia and the rest of the world. Inchon and its aftermath represented the first real-world test of whether containment, as advocated by George F. Kennan, or liberation, as advocated by James Burnham, would be the guiding postwar doctrine of American foreign policy.

Ever since Kennan wrote his famous "X" article in Foreign Affairs in July 1947, in which he advocated "firm and vigilant containment" of Soviet expansionist tendencies, and James Burnham responded in a trilogy of books -The Struggle for the World, The Coming Defeat of Communism, and Containment or Liberation?--that containment was not enough, that we needed to liberate territories and people under Soviet control, Americans and American policymakers debated the best approach to the Soviet threat. Inchon and its aftermath changed that debate from an academic exercise to an actual policy choice.

The Truman administration's initial policy choice was for liberation. MacArthur's battlefield success sent North Korean troops reeling across the 38th Parallel, and both the Truman administration and the United Nations authorized MacArthur to send forces into North Korea with the goal of liberating the country from communist rule. This remained the policy choice until Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River and entered the war in full force on North Korea's side. Unwilling to wage a wider war against China, and despite protests from MacArthur, the Truman administration's policy slowly evolved toward settling for containment on the Korean peninsula.

MacArthur was relieved of command and came home to a hero's welcome. He famously addressed a joint session of Congress on April 19, 1951. That address is largely remembered for his line that "old soldiers never die, they just fade away," but its substantive parts included a powerful vision of the geopolitical importance of the Asia -Pacific region.

"While Asia is commonly referred to as the gateway to Europe," MacArthur explained, "it is no less true that Europe is the gateway to Asia, and the broad influence of the one cannot fail to have its impact upon the other." "The communist threat," he continued, "is a global one... You cannot appease or... surrender to communism in Asia without simultaneously undermining our efforts to halt its advance in Europe."

Asia, he continued, contained half the earth's people and nearly sixty percent of the earth's natural resources. We were witnessing, he said, "a shift in the world's economic frontiers" and the United States must reorient its policies accordingly. America's victory in the Pacific, MacArthur stated, shifted our strategic frontier to embrace the entire Pacific Ocean. "We control it," he explained, "... by a chain of islands extending in an arc from the Aleutians to the Marianas." From that island chain, "we can dominate with sea and air power every Asiatic port from Vladivostok to Singapore and prevent any hostile movement into the Pacific." "With naval and air supremacy and modest ground elements to defend bases, any major attack from continental Asia toward us or our friends of the Pacific would be doomed to failure."

To hold this "littoral defense line in the western Pacific," MacArthur continued, we must hold "all segments thereof." Any major breach of the island chain, such as the loss of Formosa (Taiwan), would doom our position in the Pacific and potentially push our western frontier back to California.

China, MacArthur warned, is a new and dominant power in Asia whose interests temporarily coincide with those of the Soviet Union. (Here, MacArthur glimpsed a future Sino-Soviet rift). But for now, China demonstrated the "same lust for the expansion of power which has animated every would-be conqueror since the beginning of time."

The United States must win the war in Korea, he said, and add the Korean peninsula to Japan, the Philippines, and Formosa as outposts of the free world in Asia (Representative Speeches, 1964).

In an address to the American Legion Convention in Miami, Florida, on October 17, 1951, MacArthur reiterated that in the Pacific, the U.S. and its allies "maintain an island defense chain off the coast of continental Asia which must be preserved inviolate at any cost." To maintain that position, he continued, we must "retain undisputed control of the seas, to secure undisputed control of the air" (Representative Speeches, 1964).

In a speech to the Mississippi legislature in March 1952, MacArthur reviewed the events in Korea and China and envisioned what the loss of continental Asia would mean for U.S. security. The Sino-Soviet bloc would strive for "global omnipotence, with the hope of ultimate domination over the seaborne commerce of the world. Beyond Asia, Africa would then be exposed to Communist hordes dominating the Indian Ocean area, and Europe would come under real threat of invasion." "The first line of freedom's defense," he intoned, "is not the Elbe, not the Rhine, but it is in Korea on the Yalu" (Representative Speeches, 1964). Here, MacArthur echoed the geopolitical warnings of Mahan, Mackinder, and Spykman: control of the major power centers of Eurasia could lead to dominant land power being married to dominant sea power and, in Mackinder's words, "the empire of the world would then be in sight" (Mackinder, 1962).

The Korean armistice set a policy precedent, but it did not settle the larger academic policy debate. In the election of 1952, GOP candidate Dwight Eisenhower (once an aid to MacArthur) and the GOP platform called for rolling-back the Soviet empire, i.e., liberation. Eisenhower's top foreign policy advisor and future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles wrote an article in Life magazine extolling the virtues of rolling-back the Soviet empire. In Korea, however, Eisenhower as President maintained Truman's policy of containment. And when faced with opportunities to implement rollback in East Germany in 1953, and Poland and Hungary in 1956, Eisenhower, like Truman, drew back from liberation and settled for containment. The Korean precedent--the consequence of Inchon and its aftermath--was followed.

The next policy test came in Southeast Asia. Interestingly, MacArthur warned both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to avoid a ground war in Vietnam. But after the North Vietnamese infiltration of, and aggression in, South Vietnam, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon fought that war largely inside the territory of South Vietnam, adhering to the Korean precedent of containment. Indeed, when the United States lost the war in Southeast Asia, James Burnham blamed its defeat on the "self-imposed strategic prison" of containment. MacArthur would have undoubtedly agreed.

When a democratic political uprising in Czechoslovakia was crushed by Soviet military forces in 1968, the Johnson administration did not interfere, hewing to the Eisenhower precedent consistent with the overall policy of containment, and consistent with the Brezhnev Doctrine which proclaimed the right of the Soviet Union to use military force to maintain communist regimes in power.

The Korean precedent and Eisenhower precedents remained inviolate in U.S. foreign policy until the Reagan administration. President Ronald Reagan signed national security directives establishing the downfall of the Soviet Union as a policy goal. He significantly increased America's defense capabilities, both strategic and conventional. He increased military aid to the Afghan Rebels who challenged Soviet rule. He supported the rebels in Nicaragua who challenged the rule of the Marxist Sandinista regime. He liberated the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada from communist rule. He conducted economic and political warfare against the Soviet Union. Reagan's policies, combined with Soviet vulnerabilities and Gorbachev's unwillingness to crush rebellions in Eastern Europe, led to the end of the Soviet empire and the Cold War. MacArthur, one presumes, would have applauded Reagan's policy.

Thirty-nine years after Inchon, the Berlin Wall came down. One wonders what would have happened if Inchon and its aftermath, instead of resulting in stalemate, had led to the liberation of North Korea as MacArthur wanted to do; if Eisenhower had provided aid to the East German workers in 1953 or the Hungarian rebels in 1956; if Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon had fought an offensive war on the territory of North Vietnam; if the Johnson administration had aided the Prague Spring in 1968. An earlier application of the policy of liberation could have resulted in a major global war, or it could have ended the Cold War much earlier. This will remain one of the "what ifs" of history (Sempa, 2015).

In July 1961, in a speech to a joint session of the Philippine Congress in Manila, MacArthur lamented that our policy failures in Korea and China have produced "the military rise of Red China into a mighty colossus which threatens all of Asia and bids fair to emerge as the balance of military power in the world." This," he said, "would jeopardize freedom on all continents" (Representative Speeches, 1964).

Richard Nixon (1982) in his post-presidential book Leaders, noted that in his conversations with MacArthur in the 1950s and early 1960s, "[n]early always MacArthur's comments got back to Asia." Nixon (1982) wrote that criticism of MacArthur by America's foreign policy establishment stemmed from the clash between an Atlanticist worldview and MacArthur's vision of an Asian-centered geopolitics. Americans, Nixon (1982) wrote, are beginning to appreciate the wisdom of MacArthur's prediction that "the history of the world for the next several generations may well be dictated by the men and women of the Orient."

As America and its allies debate how to respond to China's challenges in the East China and South China Seas, the Indian Ocean, and across central Asia, Herman (2016) correctly notes that "MacArthur's life and career may be more relevant than ever for understanding our world today," because the man who arguably was America's greatest general "also foresaw the greatest geopolitical shift for his nation's future since its founding, away from Europe and towards Asia and the Pacific Rim."


Herman, A. (2016). Douglas MacArthur: American warrior. New York: Random House

MacArthur, D. (1964). Reminiscences. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mackinder, J. (1962). The geographical pivot of history. In Democratic ideals and reality. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Morris, S., Jr. (2014). Supreme commander: MacArthur's triumph in Japan. New York: Harper Collins.

Nixon, R. (1982). Leaders. New York: Warner Books.

Representative Speeches of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur (1964). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (2002, 2007), and America's Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War (2009). He has also written introductions to four books on U.S. foreign policy and geopolitics. He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Orbis, The Diplomat, the Asian Review of Books, the University Bookman, the Claremont Review of Books, the Washington Times, the South China Morning Post, Caixon Online, American Diplomacy, the New York Journal of Books, Strategic Review, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and an affiliate of the Mackinder Forum.

Sempa, F.P. (2015, Sept. 27). After Inchon: Containment or liberation?" The Diplomat.

Francis P. Sempa, Wilkes University
COPYRIGHT 2016 American Society for Competitiveness
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sempa, Francis P.
Publication:Competition Forum
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Jul 1, 2016
Previous Article:Competitiveness Council and Development of Public Policies.
Next Article:Mixed Signals: Do College Graduates Have the Soft Skills That Employers Want?

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |